The "business risk" doctrine has become a fixture of insurance coverage law, with profound implications for insured contractors and plaintiff property owners involved in construction-defect litigation. Concisely stated, the doctrine holds that “faulty workmanship standing alone, resulting in damage only to the work product itself. . .” falls outside the ambit of coverage provided by a CGL policy. Firemen's Ins. Co. of Newark v. National Union Fire Ins. Co., 387 N.J.Super. 434, 449 (App. Div. 2006) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). See also 4 Bruner & O'Connor Construction Law § 11:37.
A review of the decisional law advancing this principle reveals a lack of consensus with respect to its rationale and application. A particularly uneven treatment of the “business risk” distinction is found in cases where damages are confined to an insured contractor’s work product but extend, qualitatively, beyond mere faulty workmanship. Consider the following example:
A residential developer undertakes the construction of a wood-framed apartment building. The exterior of the building is clad in a synthetic stucco system, which, due to faulty workmanship, allows water infiltration into the building’s main walls. This water infiltration, in turn, causes damage to contiguous building materials (stud framing, sheathing, interior finishes, etc.), which are otherwise defect-free. No damage is sustained beyond the building itself.
Purchasers of the building file suit against the developer seeking recovery for (1) the cost of replacing the defective synthetic stucco system; and (2) the cost of repairing the consequential damages to the underlying building materials.
The developer submits to its insurer a claim for defense and indemnity under a CGL policy covering “property damage” caused by an “occurrence” and featuring the standard “business risk” exclusions.
A reoccurring controversy in insurance coverage law is whether the damages in item 2—the cost of repairing consequential loss stemming from a defective component in the insured’s work product—are covered under a CGL policy. To the extent such damages affect only the “work product itself,” they would seem, at least facially, to come within the preclusive ambit of the “business risk” doctrine—they are not damage to “other” or “third-party” property. However, a more thoroughgoing analysis, as presented in two recent Federal Circuit opinions—Stanley Martin Companies, Inc. v. Ohio Cas. Group, 2009 WL 367589 (4th Cir. Feb. 12, 2009) and Mid-Continent Casualty Co., v. JHP Development, Inc., --- F.3d ----, 2009 WL 189886 (5th Cir. Jan. 28, 2009)—leads to a different conclusion. These cases shed new light on the contours and limitations of the “business risk” doctrine, distinguishing between the defects in an insured’s work product, which generally are excluded from coverage, and the consequential injuries stemming from those defects to other parts of the same work product. According to the recent decisions, the latter category of damages is not necessarily excluded.
In Stanley Martin, decided February 12, 2009, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that damages caused by defective trusses supplied by a subcontractor and used in the construction of new townhouses constituted a covered “occurrence” within the meaning of the general contractor’s CGL policy. In keeping with the standard coverage form, the policy at issue defined “occurrence” as “an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful conditions.” Stanley Martin, supra, at 1. The underlying litigation stemmed from mold damage, originating from the defective trusses, and spreading to other, non-defective, components of the buildings. No damage was sustained beyond the building itself.
Applying Virginia law, the lower court had determined that the alleged damages did not come within the scope of the relevant policy because the general contractor’s “remediation costs arose out of damage to [its] own ‘work’ caused by the faulty workmanship of its subcontractor[.]” Id. at 2. This exigency, in the court’s view, “was not ‘unexpected’ or an ‘accident.’” Id. It was an anticipated, and therefore uninsured, risk of doing business.
In the decision reversing the lower court’s ruling, the Court of Appeals confronted a divergence of opinion in the Fourth Circuit with respect to the proper application of the “business risk” principle to such circumstances. Four years prior, the Fourth Circuit had addressed a similar set of facts in Travelers Indemnity Co. of America v. Miller Building Corp., 142 F. App’x 147 (4th Cir. 2005). Apparently relying on the “business risk” distinction, the Miller court held that the consequential injuries to the building, which “allegedly [were] a result of the subcontractor’s defective performance,” were confined to the building itself and, therefore, “not considered to be ‘unexpected’ or caused by an ‘occurrence.’” Stanley Martin, supra, at 2 (quoting Miller, supra, at 149) (internal quotation marks omitted). Because, in the court’s view, the damage to the general contractor’s work did not constitute an “occurrence,” it did not trigger the insurers duty to indemnify.
The Fourth Circuit reached the opposite conclusion a year later in French v. Assurance Co. of America, 448 F.3d 693 (4th Cir. 2006). In that case, the court distinguished between the subcontractor’s defective work and the damage caused to the surrounding components, which were, in themselves, defect-free. The coverage dispute stemmed from the circumstances presented in the introductory fact pattern—a residential developer hired a subcontractor to clad the exterior of a new home with synthetic stucco system known as “Exterior Insulation Finishing System” (“EIFS”). Defects in the EIFS allowed moisture intrusion that caused damage to the home’s underlying structure. While acknowledging that the subcontractor’s defective work was, in and of itself, an excluded business risk, the court determined that the damage caused by that defective work to the surrounding non-defective components did constitute “an accident, and therefore a [covered] occurrence under the initial grant of coverage of the [CGL policy].” Stanley Martin, supra, at 2 (quoting French, supra, at 704-05) (internal quotation marks omitted). In reaching this conclusion, the court reasoned that, “[a]s delivered per the construction contract,” the surrounding components were “defect-free,” such that their subsequent damage was unexpected. Id.
Faced with these diverging opinions, the Stanley Martin court rejected Miller and endorsed French as the controlling iteration of the “business risk” distinction. The bifurcation of the insured’s work between defective and non-defective components was, in the court’s view, well “grounded in the plain language of the policy and the interplay between the policy’s broad definition of an ‘occurrence’ and the policy’s ‘your work’ exclusion” which excepted subcontractor work. See Stanley Martin, supra, at 2 (quoting French, supra, at 703 (internal quotation marks omitted). At oral argument, the insurer in Stanley Martin tried to distinguish French on the basis that the moisture intrusion that damaged the home’s non-defective structure was a separate event that could constitute an occurrence. The mold at issue in Stanley Martin, on the other hand, was present in the townhouses as soon as the trusses were installed. The court found this argument unpersuasive, characterizing it as a “labored distinction [that] places more weight on the policy language than it can bear.” Id. at 2. Because there was “no allegation that the general contractor either expected or intended that its subcontractor would perform defective work or that the spread of mold beyond the defective trusses was expected or intended,” the court determined that these events were “occurrences” capable of triggering coverage under CGL policy. Id. at 3 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).
The Fifth Circuit’s January 28, 2009 decision in Mid-Continent also addressed the application of the “business risk” principle in the context of a construction defect case. Mid-Continent focused, not on the meaning of the word “occurrence,” but rather on the scope of the standard “business risk” exclusion for damage to “[t]hat particular part of any property that must be restored, repaired or replaced because ‘your work’ was incorrectly performed on it.” Id. at 3. Like the Stanley Martin court, the Fifth Circuit emphasized a distinction between the defective and non-defective components of the insured’s work product. Factually, the coverage dispute stemmed from an insured developer’s construction of a four-story, wood-framed residential building with inadequate water-sealants and retaining walls. As a consequence of these deficiencies, large quantities of water penetrated the interior of the structure through the ceilings and walls, under doors, and at other points, damaging contiguous building materials, which were, in themselves, defect-free. After receiving a demand for defense and indemnity, the developer’s CGL insurer filed a declaratory judgment action seeking, among other things, a declaration that coverage was barred by the above-quoted “business risk” exclusion. Id. at 3. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals framed the issue in the following manner:
Whether the exclusion bars recovery for damage to any part of a property worked on by a contractor that is caused by the contractor’s defective work, including damage to parts of he property that were the subject of only non-defective work, or whether the exclusion only applies to property damage to parts of the property that were themselves the subject of the defective work.
Id. at 6. Examining the plain language of the exclusion, the court determined that only property damage “to parts of the property that were themselves the subjects of the defective work [was] excluded.” Id. at 6 (emphasis added). The court rejected as unpersuasive the approach taken in another jurisdiction in which consequential damages to non-defective components were necessarily deemed an excluded “business risk.” Id. at 7 (declining to follow Century Indemnity Co. v. Golden Hills Builders, Inc., 384 S.C. 559 (2002)). Such an approach, the court reasoned, improperly subordinates analysis of the policy’s language to a presumption about the underlying purpose of CGL coverage. Id. at 7. “The mere fact that a policy is designated as a ‘commerical general liability’ insurance policy is not grounds for overlooking the actual language of that policy.” Id. The court therefore cabined its discussion to the terms of the policy before it and determined that the consequential losses in question went beyond the “particular part of the [the contractor’s] work” containing defects. Thus, the “business risk” exclusion was inapplicable and coverage obtained.
Stanley Martin and Mid-Continent continue a discernable trend in favor of coverage where an insured contractor’s faulty workmanship results in damage to otherwise non-defective work product. While it can generally be said the faulty workmanship is, itself, an anticipated risk of doing business, the consequences flowing from such workmanship are not so easily categorized. The Fourth and Fifth Circuit decisions reflect a growing recognition across jurisdictions that broad-stroked applications of the “business risk” rule—which is essentially an insurance industry trade concept—must not supercede analysis of the plain language of insurance contracts. See Zacarias v. Allstate Ins. Co. 168 N.J. 590, 595 (2001) (“In the first instance, the words of an insurance policy are to be given their plain, ordinary meaning.”) See also 4 Bruner & O'Connor Construction Law § 11:37. Absent a particular policy exclusion, the logical basis for differentiating between consequential loss to an insured’s work product and consequential loss to other property remains tenuous, and all but a shrinking minority of jurisdictions have either abandoned or qualified the distinction.